Hooch for the Holidays: Wine Suggestions from the Experts

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Justin Vann and Jonathan Honefenger are two men who know their wine.

I turned to these two Houston experts -- Vann is the beer and wine manager at Central Market and Honefenger, once the sommelier at Tony's, is now lead sommelier for Richard's -- for their wine recommendations for the holidays, getting their thoughts and ideas on what's popular for 2010 and what they hope to see more people drinking in 2011. At a time of year when people are seeking to buy bottles of bubbly for parties or looking for that perfect pairing for Christmas dinner, these two gentlemen can get you headed down the right path in no time.

On the phone, Honefenger was walking the aisles of Richard's as he spoke to me, picking up bottles and describing them to me the way you'd describe precious jewels. "This one's beautiful," he sighed, handling a bottle of 2007 Feudi della Medusa Vermentino di Sardegna Albithia. Despite the cumbersome name, this white wine is one of his favorites of the moment.

"I love the acidity and the citrus zest. It's got a good minerality, good mouthfeel to it," he said, "They've got really cool stuff going on with indigenous grapes. We're always trying to look for the next unique region that's accessible." At $19.79, it's one of the bottles that Honefenger recommends as an inexpensive gift with zing.

If you'd rather gift a red instead, he enthuses about the 2008 Chateau Ampelia Côtes de Castillon. "It's one that I've been enjoying recently; it's a sleeper of the vintage." The wine is a Bordeaux blend that's 95 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Franc grapes.

"It has a really nice, rich fruit quality with a touch of floral aspects," he said. "It's one of those you could sit down for a year or two or enjoy right now, and it's one that's not very well-known but it's done very well in a vintage that was not a very good vintage." And like the Albithia, it's under $20.

Vann, on the other hand, is a huge advocate of bubbles this time of year, and he's as effusive about his preference for sparkling wine as a glass of Champagne.

"This is the time of the year when people are most open to drinking sparkling wine," Vann enthused over the phone this morning. "Part of my mission is to make that more common in people's lives. If you're ever going to bring Champagne to a party, this is the time to do it. We should encourage people to think of sparkling wine as just wine with bubbles in it. We attach too much pomp and circumstance to it; as Americans, we just can't shake the idea of sparkling wine as fancy."

Vann's suggestions for sparkling wine don't include just Champagne. He wants to disabuse people of the notion -- and rightfully so -- that all sparkling wine is Champagne and vice versa. "Sparkling chenin blanc is really high acid and has an earthy funk to it that works really well," he said, like a Vouvray Tête de Cuvé demi-sec that Central Market currently sells for $17.95. He also likes the even less expensive Casteller Cava at $11.99 -- but warns that the brut is better than the rosé. For something a bit pricier, but still a good deal, he offered up the Laurent-Perrier (an actual Champagne) that's currently on sale for $37.99 through January 1.

"I like sparkling red a lot, too," he admitted. Then, laughing: "I'm not supposed to tell people that I like that, but I do. Sparkling wine is supposed to be clear or rosé, at the very least. It's so good. It actually can pair well with some stuff, but sparkling Shiraz goes really well with mole and other dishes that are difficult to pair."

To his point, Vann even recommends sparkling wine with your holiday honey-baked ham. "You have the sweetness of the crust and the ham is inherently sweet, plus the acid cuts through the fat in the pork. A high-acid white wine like a Halbtrocken would be great, too." But he doesn't discount other, more traditional favorites like the seasonal Beaujolais Nouveau.

"I think it pairs really well with holiday food, even though 'wine-a-rati' might not appreciate it," he chuckled. "It's an $8 bottle of wine; it's not gonna blow your mind out of your skull, but it's fun to have a tradition like that."

For his part, Honefenger prefers red as well for a holiday dinner pairing. "Everyone likes reds," he told me. "So let's do something fun. A 2009 Moulin-a-Vent, a Cru Beaujolais," he said, that's the so-called Big Daddy of Beaujolais. "The thing about this is that it's a gamay grape and the 2009 vintage was stunning; this is one of the best vintages in the last four years. It's really nice, rich fruit but light in tannin, with none of that bubble gum flavor."

If you're pairing wine with game, however, like a rack of lamb, Vann has a different suggestion entirely than sparkling wine: "Duchess de Borgogne!" was his excited answer, a traditional Flemish red ale that is most definitely not a wine (but might be passed off as wine in the right glass, once the head has died down...maybe...maybe).

And in that non-traditional vein, I asked Honefenger for a recommendation from Richard's for that hypothetical person who has endlessly deep pockets: What would he buy if money was no object?

"No object at all?" repeated Honefenger, suddenly sounding very excited. "Well, it's a toss-up between two, I think. It would either be a 1995 Château Ausone Premier Grand Cru Classé A. It's from Saint-Émilion and it's $1,205.99."

"Or," he finally deliberated, "a 1996 Château Pétrus from Pomerol. That's $1,482.99. Both are Merlot-based and are actually pretty close to each other. Ausone is considered the best in Saint-Émilion, though. You could probably age them both for another 10 to 15 years."

As a final teaser, he added, "The Pétrus is one of the most counterfeited bottles in the world, you know." You just try recovering from that fascinating Internet rabbit-hole and being productive the rest of the day. I couldn't.

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